Home & School Matters: Video games for college credit?

It sounds like a dream – playing games for college credit. And in fact, video games are a crucial part of the curriculum at DigiPen Institute of Technology, in Redmond, Wash, though students do a lot more than simply play games.

DigiPen is a school dedicated to video game design and it’s rigorous academically, though the courses differ from your typical school: BIO 150 Human Muscular, Skeletal and Kinetic Anatomy teaches students about the biology of the body, as you might expect, but with a “special emphasis to adapting this knowledge to the needs of artists and animators.”

DigiPen was recently named the third best school for studying video game design, right behind the University of Utah and USC. But not that long ago, it was one of the only places to study game design. It’s been 15 years since the school moved from Canada to its current Redmond, CA home.

Claude Comair is DigiPen’s president and founder. He is also a co-founder of game developer Nintendo Software Technology, has degrees in architecture and engineering and has lived all over the world. DigiPen is now all over the world too – it has opened campuses in Singapore and Bilbao, Spain. It’s one of the things that Comair is most proud of.

“We have received invitations from many governments to establish DigiPen in their countries,” said Comair, and the school has chosen to open a very few campuses abroad. The Singapore campus does more than just educate students, Comair said; it “is an active part” of Singapore’s growth in the digital and software industries, he said. Comair is proud “that DigiPen is not just a school,” but part of an area and part of a solution to creating industry in that area, he said.

While games have long been big business, they also now have an evolving relationship with art (paywall); the MoMA in New York recently began acquiring video games. DigiPen has expanded its fine arts courses. Rilla Jaggia, whom I interviewed for a piece about the opening of DigiPen’s Redmond campus, was one of the original Redmond students but left the school after the first term. A former finance professor, Jaggia was interested in the more artistic side of games design. At the time, she said, the focus was more on programming, which Jaggia knew little about. Given the current expansion of DigiPen’s classes, Jaggia said she “was in the right place at the wrong time.”

Arisa Scott seems to have been in the right place at the right time. She graduated from DigiPen in 2011 with a BFA in production animation and is now the Technical Product Manager for the Client-Side Engineering team at Expedia. Scott didn’t originally plan to go to DigiPen – it seemed too specialized. However, she ultimately chose it because “I decided I would rather be chasing after something I thought I would love than settling for something that was just okay,” she wrote over email. Now, she uses her skills not at a game developer but at Expedia, where her team lives “halfway between design and engineering–which is where I love to be.”

While many DigiPen students have developed games, DigiPen’s understanding of games and technology has other applications as well. For example, in 2009, Boeing named DigiPen one of its top suppliers for the work DigiPen did with simulations. The two organizations worked together to build software based on “easy-to-use techniques from the computer gaming industry,” Boeing wrote.

All of which makes DigiPen sound like a far more practical choice than the idea of a “video game college” might initially appear.  If the purpose of college is to prepare students for a job – and this idea is regularly debated – then DigiPen, with its training for the multibillion dollar games industry as well as applications outside it, will likely be around for at least another 15 years.

Moira Muldoon
Moira Muldoon writes about technology, culture, education and healthcare. Her work has been published in Wired.com, Salon and the Austin American-Statesman, among others.
Moira Muldoon
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